My comments on the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the US Census

I’m sorry to leave this till the last minute, but there are just over 24 hours left to make public comments on an important mistake that the US Census Bureau is set on making. The Bureau has proposed, over the objections of many of its own staff, to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 survey. This is a terrible idea which is almost certain to cause immigrants to be undercounted because of fear, especially in the context of the vicious hostility the US has been displaying against immigrants over the past couple of years. Even if that were an unintended consequence, it would be reason enough to oppose this change, but there is also strong reason to believe it’s being done in bad faith. Meanwhile, the 2020 Census was already in danger from good old fashioned neglect, underfunding and incompetence, problems that will only be compounded by adding a question that discourages responses.

As someone who uses Census statistics regularly in my work, I am concerned that if this is allowed to go through it will leave us unable to rely on the 2020 count as the accurate snapshot we depend on it being. As a citizen and resident of this country, I am afraid that what we’re seeing is a deliberate attempt to skew future elections and federal government resource allocations by systematically undercounting the population of areas with more immigrants.

If you read this in time, please make a public comment.  It doesn’t have to be a long reasoned argument—even just saying “please don’t add the citizenship question” may be worth something—but here’s what I wrote, trying to put it in terms that the Census Bureau is officially supposed to care about, in case it helps you to write yours:

I urge the Census Bureau to drop the proposed citizenship question.  Asking about citizenship is practically guaranteed to cause an undercount, undermining the Bureau’s mission of counting every person once, and adding to the resources the Bureau has to expend on sending enumerators out in person.  The undercount will also be skewed towards specifically undercounting immigrants and their family members, a systematic bias that will make Census results less accurate.  The current viciously anti-immigrant political climate is bound to make this problem worse, though it would also have been a problem without recent developments.

I personally am a naturalized US citizen.  I would be able to enter “US” if the 2020 Census were to include a question about citizenship, and am consequently not afraid of this for myself.  But I only naturalized recently, and have a strong memory of how insecure I felt as first a visa holder and later a permanent resident, knowing that in either case an error on a form could have jeopardized my ability to stay in the country I had made my home, even though I have always maintained legal status here and gone out of my way to make sure all my papers were in order.  Having had a citizenship question in the previous Census would have made me think carefully about whether it was safe to respond.  I must assume that the fear is orders of magnitude greater for people who are in the US without authorization—people who it is nevertheless the Census’s remit to include in the count—and for people who immigrated from less stable, more corrupt countries than I did.  Certainly when I have worked with groups representing immigrants from such countries, their leaders have been open about the difficulty of convincing the people they represent to trust any representative of the government, after years living in a place where all such people must be feared.

It is also impossible to escape the fact that the addition of a citizenship question comes against a background of the federal government being openly hostile to all immigrants, from the stepping up of ICE raids to the President’s stated goal of halving legal immigration and closing some of the legal immigration pathways altogether.  If I were still a foreign national, I would be much more afraid of declaring it on a Census form in that context than I would have been two years ago.  And I am entirely unable to trust that this change is being made for good reasons and not out of malicious intent: either to deliberately undercount the population in immigrant-heavy electoral districts, or to direct anti-immigrant enforcement to such areas.

Even if the intent is in fact unimpeachable, the predictable effect of this proposed question will be deeply harmful, and I urge you to drop it.


Eldan Goldenberg